Stock photography is dead, long live stock photography (Act 2 of 3)

This is the second of three posts explaining on my perspective on the business of stock photography. By way of background, I should say there is a reason I based the title of these entries on that famous quote about transitions within a monarchy when I wrote; “Stock photography is dead, long live stock photography.” The quote alludes to the idea that within a kingdom (and now within stock photography,) the old leadership and structure have ended but at the exact same moment, a new leadership and structure is already in place.

In my last blog post, I briefly explained the three broadly defined categories of stock, Rights Managed, Royalty Free and Micro. Each of those approaches spawned a successor and that successor cannibalized its parent. I also discussed the various economic rationales/business models behind each of the three.

I have long thought about how growing my stock photography business was becoming a bit of race. The end of the race would be when the various agencies that I work with would stop taking new work. That is now starting to happen and I will write more about that in the third part of this series.

I initially thought that somehow they would get “filled up” with images. Then I realized that the agencies would in fact continue want new styles of imagery. But, I was increasingly concerned that I might not be able or willing to make the new work they continually needed.

It is not that I am so brilliant, but I have long seen this day coming. When I hit my stride doing in-depth photo-essays for the Philadelphia Inquirer Sunday Magazine I looked ahead, saw the future and it did not look promising. The in-depth photo essays published over eight, ten or twelve pages, plus the cover that I was doing so well had little future with the shortened attention span brought on by USA Today back then and the internet today.

As editorial assignments waned and stock was increasingly used, my business followed as I shifted from doing assignments to producing stock. When I finally appreciated the profound nature of that change, I started to ask myself, “OK, what’s next? If history is any guide, just as stock displaced much of the assignment market, what will soon be displacing the stock market?”

The answer that I came up with, is in fact not what happened, but the failure of my prognostication is another story altogether.

With the onset of digital imaging, I thought that stock photography generated by people like me was going to be displaced by two sources of new imagery. I was sure that frame grabs, where a single frame from a video recording is used as a still image would be the end. If it was not that, I was equally sure that the next generation of stock photography was going to be created by machines as CGI (computer generated imagery,) where new images are assembled digitally using components from existing images. For the companies licensing images, the economic logic of these strategies is that neither involves paying royalties to those “pesky” creators of the intellectual property, the photographers.

I was wrong about these two points, but I was correct that the stock agencies would move towards getting imagery from new sources that would cost them a whole lot less than paying the “pesky” photographers they used to work with.

One irony is that most professional photographers now see frame grabs and computer generated imagery looming on the horizon so they will be here eventually.

Instead of being displaced by the technology directly with frame grabs and CGI, traditional stock photographers are being displaced by equally innovative technology, but in this case indirectly via cameras now in the hands of non-professionals who have no understanding of the economics of stock photography.

These amazing new digital cameras produce work of such a high technical quality that the much of the latest stock photography is coming from non-professionals who are displacing the established professionals. The new work is often over-produced by the creators, in terms of Photoshop manipulation situations while grossly undervalued in economic terms, by those same creators. Photographers are increasingly eating their own, making a few dollars, or less, for the so-called distinction of being published. I am not the first to borrow the line from the cartoon character Pogo, who said, “I have seen the enemy and he is us.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *